The Turfan Basin formed in a shear zone during the Late Permian due to motion between the East European and the Angaran craton. It was subsequently deformed by the collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates in the Cenozoic. In the latter deformation, a thrust fault belt running from east to west, the Flaming Mountains, was formed in the center of the basin. The Flaming Mountains are 98 km long and 9 km wide; the highest peak reaches an elevation of 831.7 m above sea level. Also in the center of the basin lies the Aydingkol (Moonlight) Lake which has an elevation of 155 m below sea level (see the list of places on land with elevations below sea level). Its shores mark the second lowest exposed elevation on the Earth's land surface (after the Dead Sea which reaches down to more than 400 meters below sea level).
On the shores of Aydingkol Lake, reeds, tamarisks, sacsaouls "plump girls", as well as other shrubs and weeds can be found. Away from sources of water, the Turfan Basin is not covered by vegetation. Consequently, agriculture is limited to oasis and depends on a sophisticated irrigation system known as the Karez System. The irrigation water comes from the surrounding mountain ranges, in particular from the annual melting of the snow. The Karez System consists of wells, underground channels, ground canals, and small reservoirs, which use the natural slope of the terrain to sustain the water flow and guide the water right to the plants while minimizing evaporation all along the way. The historical record of the system extends back to the Han Dynasty. The number of Karez systems in the area is slightly below 1,000 and the total length of the canals is about 5,000 km in length. The Karez System is therefore considered as one of the three great ancient projects in China along with the Great Wall and the Grand Canal. Farming in the Turfan Basin is particularly famous for its fruit. Because of the dry and hot conditions, the fruits grown in the depression have very high concentrations of sugar. They are traditionally processed by drying in open drying barns. The cultivated fruit include: mulberry, peach, apricot, apple, pomegranate, pear, fig, walnut, as well as grapes, watermelons and muskmelons. Among the fruit, the grapes stand out: more than 100 varieties of grape are cultivated in the area and it accounts for 90% of China's seedless grape crop. Other specialty agricultural products of the region are Donghu Hami melons and long-staple cotton.
The ancient city of Gaochang was a key point on the ancient Silk Road and dates back to the 1st century BC. It was burnt down in wars in the 14th century. The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, which are located in the Flaming Mountains' Mutou Valley, about 30 km (18 miles) east of the city of Turpan, have been hewn into the rock from the Tang Dynasty era up to the time of the Yuan Dynasty (13th century). The caves are famous for their murals, which can still be found in about 40 of the 77 known caves. The desert climate has favored preservation of the content of the Astana-Karakhoja ancient tombs, which are located about 6 km from the ancient city of Gaochang. The tombs are the burial place for nobles, officials, and others who were interred there from the times of the Western Jin Dynasty until the middle of the Tang Dynasty era.